Challenge your sales reps and your customers!

By | November 19, 2014

ceb-challenger-sale-book-cropIf you are involved in selling products into enterprise B2B customers you probably know that engaging with your clients purely around product features and benefits has been delivering diminishing returns for a long time now. Without anchoring the conversation around some sort of value proposition (eg helping your client save money, make money or avoid losing money) the race to the bottom is accelerated, and discounts and tough negotiations on price become the norm.

Over the last twenty years the concept of solution selling has been heavily implemented in professional sales organizations, with the bundling of products and services into solutions to help drive the conversation around business value. But that is no longer enough.

Today customers are smarter than ever and have access to information about vendors and their propositions which they never had historically.

It is a truism that 60% of the sales cycle starts before the vendor is even invited in to discuss their offerings. So much data is available on the web, whether through “owned media” (like the vendors web site) or through “earned media” (in the press, discussion threads, review sites and so on), that a lot of “due dilligence” can be done by the client themselves, and they may well know more about the vendors offering than the rep themselves.

What are the implications of this?

Well firstly, if 60% of the sales cycle starts before the rep can actually engage, the onus is on the marketing function to get the value proposition into the places that their target audiences go to get information. They also have a responsibility to drive the air cover for the sales reps so when they do show up, they are not spending the first 10 minutes explaining what their company actually does. So Marketing is getting more critical than ever.

Secondly it means that a rep that shows up with a product pitch or a company overview is wasting the client’s time. Chances are that the client is one step ahead and is already working out how to drive down the price. CEB, the member-based advisory company has shown the ineffectiveness of the pure product sale today, and even the more solution-oriented approach.

In a methodology that is beginning to sweep through professional B2B sale organizations, CEB focuses on the pre-eminence of what they call “customer insight“. It is the delivery of this insight that sets the most successful sales people apart from the others – a group they call the ‘challenger sales reps’. These are high achieving reps who tell their customers something they don’t know. They bring insight to their clients, something that the client would have not considered or known (or could have not found easily by trawling the web). These insights, if acted upon, can lead to saving money or making money out of all proportion to the investment required. They are essentially “challenging” their clients to think differently, and consider discontinuous paths.

In their research CEB show that it is precisely the delivery of insight that customers value the most. The key is to earn credibility early in the sales cycle with some disruptive insight and lead the conversation through various phases until it ends with a discussion on the vendor’s products and services. Unsurprisingly the vendor’s offerings should be the only ones that can uniquely deliver on the insight. They call this “leading to” rather than “leading with” a vendor’s products and services.

Whole sales forces are being re-skilled to suit the Challenger Sales model and are being encouraged to base their sales strategies on delivering the right levels of insight. In the way that Solution Selling became the received approach in the first decade of this century, I am sure that Challenger selling will be the dominant B2B sales approach in the latter part of the second decade. If you are not familiar with it, I suggest you become so in short order.

Does it work? I can answer that with a strong affirmative. I have seen it first hand. Customers at an Executive Briefing Center of a major hardware technology company actually giving a standing ovation to a consultant who had put 2 and 2 together and made 5. He had delivered a level of insight on their business that had taken their breath away. It was not the approach they had expected from a vendor and they expressed their surprise. They followed up that surprise with a multi-million dollar order.

The issue I see with the approach at the moment is it’s scalability. Producing the insights down to a specific customer account and making them very impactful is very resource intensive. We need to find a way to automate the insight creation to a specific level. When that has been done (by utilizing disparate data sources with big data analysis) and it can be delivered “just-in-time”, and delivered fluently by sales reps then I really think we are on to something really special.



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